Saturday, March 26, 2022

Fessenden at MoMA: ABCs of Death 2

A little curation can sometimes be helpful. According to press materials, the participating filmmakers were given a completely free hand to do whatever they wanted in their contributions to the ABC’s of Death anthology films, as long as they tied everything into their assigned letter. It turns out a lot of them could have used some constructive feedback. The second anthology film is even rockier than the first, but it had a contribution from Larry Fessenden, which now screens without the other 25 letters as part of MoMA’s retrospective dedicated to Fessenden and his Glass Eye Pix production company. However, Fessenden’s “N is for Nexus” might look comparatively better when considered in the company of the entire ABC’s of Death 2, which is available for streaming.

Again, the titles are revealed at the end, to serve as a punchline for the horrors that came before. While the first
ABC’s of Death was highly uneven, #2 is a little too even, meaning the majority of its letters are a disappointment. Here’s the quick rundown:

“A is for Amateur” directed E.L. Katz, makes us initial think the A is for “action,” starting like a
Miami Vice homage but turning into a cautionary tale about air duct dangers. At least #2 starts strong, because this is one of the best letters.

“B is for Badger” from Julian Barratt is a very droll skewering of prima donna environmental TV personality, with Barratt himself getting big laughs as the insufferable Peter Toland, who gets what he has coming.

“C is for Capital Punishment,” by Julian Gilbey starts with a good set-up for an ironic community vigilantism thriller but the payoff is missing.

“D is for Deloused,” from Robert Morgan impressive stop-motion animation, but punishingly grotesque.

“E is for Equilibrium,” from Alejandro Brugues presents some dumb castaway comedy that turns into murder and back again.

“F is for Falling” from Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado is another highlight, offering darkly ironic tale of an Israeli paratrooper facing a real-life horror.

“G is for Grandad” perpetrated by Jim Hosking is a
Greasy Strangler-esque family shocker. If you don’t know that film, chances are you will be appalled by his letter G (but you’re probably lucky not to).

“H is for Head Games” animated by Bill Plympton is a surreal trifle that trippily turns romance into warfare.

“I for Invincible,” directed by Erik Matti is a bracingly cynical and ironic tale of possession and inheritance. For this greedy family, the latter is the more important part.

“J is for Jesus,” from Dennison Ramalho is exhaustingly didactic depicting a gruesome gay conversion attempt.

“K is for Knell,” co-directed by Kristina Buozyte & Bruno Samper, starts out wonderfully eerie and evocative when a strange object in sky leads to paranoia and violence. It is scary for a while, but the ending doesn’t really make sense.

Nigerian filmmaker Lancelot Imasuen contributes “L is for Legacy,” but his fable-like sacrifice/monster yarn also makes little sense.

The tighty-whity rampage “M is for Masticate,” by Robert Boockeck has energy, but it really is a slight piece.

Larry Fessenden, the man of the hour, had the letter N, so he came up with “N is for Nexus.” It is sort of
Crash set during a grungy New York Halloween. It is tightly helmed and viscerally intense, but also acutely sad.

Hajime Ohata’s “O is for Ochlocracy” presents a clever take on “cured” zombies putting the surviving
Walking Dead-style zombie-killers on trial for murder, but it lacks a compelling punchline.

Todd Royal misfires all over the place with “P is for P-P-P-Scary, a vaguely Guy Maddinesque Beagle Boys misadventure with stuttering jokes.

Rodney Ascher makes a real departure with “Q is for Questionnaire,” but he cleverly sends-up Scientology-like street intelligence tests, depicting their true, sinister purposes.

The best in show is Marvin Kren’s “R is for Roulette.” It is a stylish black-and-white twist on Russian Roulette that is probably the most intense and cohesive letter in the second alphabet of death.

Juan Martinez Moreno’s “S is for Split” is almost as brutally effective, showing a home invasion unfolding step-by-violent-step through a skillful use of split screens, but in ways that could offend the professionally offended.

The Soskas’ T is set during an audition for a very adult movie. Really bad karma happens to those that have it coming.

Vincenzo Natali’s “U is for Utopia” is a
Logan’s Run-ish dystopia based on looks rather than age that works well enough as a [very] short piece.

“V is for Vacation” from Jerome Sable is about as harsh as it gets. By the way, if your boyfriend takes off for lads’ weekend in Thailand, be suspicious.

Steve Kostanski gets more inventive than most of his colleagues in “W is for Wish,” wherein two kids find themselves sucked inside a
Masters of the Universe franchise, but as it really would be. Frankly, this plays more like a proof-of-concept than a stand-alone short, but at least it has cool stuff in it.

"X is for Xylophone” from Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo is a stylish but familiar and grotesque tale of madness and compulsion.

In Soichi Umezawa’s “Y is for Youth,” an alienated girl’s gory fantasies become gruesome wish-fulfillment. The gore is well executed, but the story isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.

Finally, Chris Nash has “Z is for Zygote,” which shows how the application of a folk remedy turns to body horror, as a mega-pregnant backwoods woman waits to deliver until her husband returns.

By far, the best letters are R, A, B, and F. It is hard to narrow down the worst. However, Fessenden’s N succeeds as a distinctive self-contained film, but it is not nearly as much fun as other selections in the retrospective. It is recommended for Fessenden’s fans when it screens 3/30 and 4/17 as part of MoMA’s
Oh, the Humanity retrospective, but ABC’s of Death 2 is not recommended in its entirety, for horror fans or anyone else—it currently streams on Tubi and Pluto.